Thursday 27 November 2014

Wilshere and Shaw in danger of slide into mediocrity

Trappings of fame and fortune take their toll as young guns struggle to live up to early promise

Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30

Luke Shaw and Jack Wilshere represent the worrying symbols of the danger that comes when the carrot is bigger than the stick. Photo credit: Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images
Luke Shaw and Jack Wilshere represent the worrying symbols of the danger that comes when the carrot is bigger than the stick. Photo credit: Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

THE Premier League doesn't do parables – certainly not at this time of year.

It's too busy hyping what it describes as the richest, most glamourous stage in world club football, which is maybe just as well for the brief but now embattled careers of first Jack Wilshere and now Luke Shaw.

Both of them seemed to have the English game at their feet, but, for the moment at least, their stories carry a rather darker note.

They might, you just have to fear, be classic examples of what can happen when a balance is lost between huge rewards and hard, if not burning commitment.

Such a conclusion is certainly difficult to ignore as the 19-year-old Shaw, at £27m the fourth most expensive defensive signing in history, is told by his Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal that he must make a massive effort to become fit for his intended purpose.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, admits that Wilshere's career – once pitched for the stars – now hangs in the balance.

This isn't so much career crisis as a moral quandary – one that asks if you give a youngster a life of ease beyond most reasonable dreams, where does the incentive give way to something more harmful?

SYMBOLS

It will no doubt takes years of fretful analysis to come up with anything like a definite answer, but, in the meantime, Shaw and Wilshere inevitably represent worrying symbols of the danger that comes when the carrot is bigger than the stick.

This is Shaw, who despite over-pricing himself at Chelsea, a place not exactly noted for frugality, was so hotly pursued by so many big clubs, emerging from his moment of truth with Van Gaal: "I didn't think coming into United would be much harder. That's something I think I made a mistake on.

"To play in his (Van Gaal's) formation you have to be fit, really fit. I'm fit, but not at the high level he demands."

Why not?

It may just have something to do with the fact that he wasn't paying sufficient attention when his new boss was whipping the Netherlands to impressive heights of over-achievement when finishing third in the World Cup.

As England's campaign – in which he was given a place which many believed would more properly have gone to the hugely experienced Ashley Cole – dwindled appallingly, Shaw was spending some time texting romantic advances to a playboy model which would never have found their way into a Jane Austin novel.

As we were saying, Shaw is 19 years old and he might have spent some of that time observing the astonishing commitment of Dirk Kuyt, the old Anfield hero who was covering every yard of the ground required of him by Van Gaal in the wing-back position to which Shaw has been designated at Old Trafford.

It is, of course, some years since Kuyt celebrated his 19th birthday – he had his 34th last week – but perhaps it was not so much that he was operating at a different age, but on a separate planet.

In some ways, though, the question marks against Wilshere are the more disturbing. He, after all, was not so much as an exciting prospect as a new member of the football elite. He was the emerging certainty in the vague aspiration of the England coach Fabio Capello to find new young players in the wake of the catastrophic World Cup performance in South Africa in 2010.

"Who do you have in mind?' Capello was asked as the tents of the training camp on the Veld were glumly folded. Capello stumbled over the names, as well he might have done.

Yet, just a few months later, there was an intoxicating vision of the 18-year-old Wilshere.

It came at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal over-ran the expensive Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions' League game. Wilshere's performance was a tour-de-force.

He ran ceaselessly, tackled with a stunning resolve and then scored with absolute authority.

Wenger ran from the dug-out with his arms in the air.

He looked like a man who had seen the future and it might just be made to work spectacularly.

The picture is not quite so seamless now and Wilshere is no longer seen as the most pervasive influence in an Arsenal and England teams.

There were also the damning pictures from Las Vegas. They showed him 'relaxing' in a swimming pool after his time in the margins of the World Cup effort in Brazil. He was drinking and smoking.

This was the second time Wilshere had been caught smoking in public – the first time was outside a London night club at an hour when dedicated young professionals of alleged destiny are safely tucked up in bed.

There are other blotches on the Wilshere record. One is a police caution administered after a nightclub incident.

Then the police warned him after he was accused of spitting at a London taxi-driver – and Tottenham supporter – who barred him from his cab for 'drunkeness.'

Last season he was banned for two weeks for an offensive gesture made during a game with Manchester City – a setback which came shortly before an injury which kept him out for six weeks and endangered his place in the World Cup squad.

Wenger dressed down Wilshere after the Vegas picture spread and pointedly told him that he had reached a pivotal point in a career which had once seemed so blessedly uncomplicated.

The player was contrite enough, saying: "Of course I regret it. It's unacceptable and I will accept the consequences and move on.

"I'm going to put this matter behind me. I have been seen smoking before and at the time I said I had made a mistake. I've made a mistake again. People make mistakes.

"I'm young and I'll learn from it. I realise the consequences it has and the effect on kids growing up. I have kids myself and I don't want them growing up to think, 'Dad smokes and it's okay. Because it's not'."

Nor is the sense that the rewards of football, the growing stockpile of privilege, has now run too far ahead of the old imperative to succeed on the field.

No doubt at some profit, the Playboy model went public with the details of Shaw's attempt at courtship.

She is the unlikeliest ally of Louis van Gaal, but, who knows, she may just have helped to make a valuable point – while there is still time.

Irish Independent

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